A Wisconsin court vacated the 1990 conviction of Richard Beranek today based on new DNA evidence proving that an FBI agent provided false testimony when testifying that a hair found on crime scene evidence was “microscopically the same” the hair of Beranek. The FBI notified the prosecution that the agent had provided erroneous testimony regarding the only physical evidence linking Beranek to the crime in May 2015 pursuant to a review of FBI cases involving microscopic hair analysis that came about after the exoneration of three men wrongly convicted at least in part because of testimony by three different FBI hair examiners whose testimony was scientifically flawed.
“We are grateful that the court recognized that the false FBI microscopic hair analysis played in Mr. Beranek’s trial,” said Bryce Benjet, a staff attorney with the Innocence Project. “DNA testing has now proven that Mr. Beranek was not the source of a hair recovered on underwear the state has always maintained were worn by the assailant. In light of this new evidence, we are hopeful the state will dismiss the charges so that Mr. Beranek can be reunited with his family.”
A woman was raped in her home on March 2, 1987. She later discovered a pair of men’s underwear in her laundry that she maintained were worn by the person who committed the crime. The case went unsolved for more than two years, during which time she was shown several photo arrays. She was eventually shown a photo array that included Beranek and identified him as her assailant. She later selected him from an in-person lineup.
At trial, the only physical evidence linking Beranek to the crime was the testimony of an FBI agent who testified that a hair found in the underwear the prosecution maintained was worn by the assailant, and was “microscopically the same as the known head hairs of the defendant.” The agent testified in a misleading fashion that exceeded the limits of science.
Beranek always maintained his innocence of the 1987 crime. At trial, he presented numerous witnesses who testified that he was in North Dakota, hundreds of miles away from the scene, on the day that the crime occurred. In addition to family members, the witnesses included a couple who had hired Beranek to paint their house. Their testimony was corroborated by a contemporaneous food stamp application listing him as residing in North Dakota. Despite his alibi, Beranek was convicted.
The Innocence Project and the Innocence Project of Wisconsin are now representing Beranek and sought DNA testing of the hair as well as the underwear and other articles of clothing. DNA testing has now proven that the hair does not belong to Beranek. Beranek was excluded from every other interpretable DNA profile detected on the evidence.
Based on the new DNA testing, the court today vacated Beranek’s conviction, finding: “This court cannot conclude that the new evidence would not materially impact the outcome at a new trial.”
Before mitochondrial DNA testing was used to analyze hair in criminal cases, prosecutors throughout the country routinely relied on microscopic hair comparison to link a criminal defendant to a crime. The practice was deemed “highly unreliable” in the 2009 National Academy of Sciences report on forensic science, Strengthening Forensic Science in the United States: A Path Forward. In April 2015, the FBI announced that agents provided erroneous testimony or reports in more than 90 percent of the cases that had been reviewed at that time. Erroneous hair comparison testimony contributed to nearly 25 percent of the nation’s 350 DNA exonerations.
Beranek is represented by Keith Findley and Cristina Bordé of the Wisconsin Innocence Project, which is affiliated with the University of Wisconsin; and Bryce Benjet and exoneree Jarrett Adams of the Innocence Project, which is affiliated with the Cardozo School of Law in New York, NY. Adams himself was wrongly convicted and later exonerated through the help of the Wisconsin Innocence Project.